The flight got in at 6.30am and it was already 28 degrees C. Descending the aircraft steps we boarded buses in the dark, a motley collection of miserable looking Northern Europeans and ebullient Indians; this was a transit flight from Mumbai. The skinny local next to me had sniffed like water down a plug hole every five seconds for the duration of the flight. Grumpy Russians muttered in guttural syllables devoid of vowel sounds; the British made sardonic asides in regional dialects and Germans sat peering out of the smeared window with misgiving. The bus performed a u turn, narrowly missing a fuel tanker, in what was to be a preface to Indian driving. I had forgotten the sheer craziness, even in sleepy, tropical Goa at 7am. We sat straddling the centre line, a foot from the car in front which then pulled a sudden right turn, bumping off towards some shops. A cow plodded towards us down the middle of the road. People squatted on the verges tending small fires. A spray of shocking purple bougainvillea cascaded over a concrete durawall. Gigantic tropical trees draped lianas. Skinny hooded crows breakfasted on the carcass of a dog. I had the strangest sense of déjà vu: this looked like Africa. Then we’d turn a corner and it resembled Thailand or Vietnam; more Vietnam really. Slightly knocked about. Buildings mildewing in the steamy grey morning. Two buses headed toward us, one overtaking the other in a cloud of black smoke, the two of them occupying the entire road. A carolling air horn, and one scrapes through by inches. Above the second bus, painted over the windscreen in letters a foot high, it says simply: “Jesus!” Yes, quite.
An hour after reaching the apartment, shot to bits with jetlag and with shoulders around my ears from weeks of stress, I take charge of a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle. The brakes are about as sharp as an oil tanker’s, the gears are all upside down, and it takes ten minutes of kicking to get it started from cold in the morning, even if cold is a relative term when it is 34 degrees and humid as a greenhouse. But it has a lovely thunderous engine note and is a great deal faster than the scooters most people ride here. No helmets in sight, and few people wear shoes; most ride in flip flops – as indeed do I on short runs. I picked up K from work and we went to lunch in a small shack: fish curry, with a big oily slab of bony fish, a pot of curry sauce, another of some kind of boiled veg, and a mound of damp rice. Halfway through a cat came and joined us. It had the endearing habit of placing a paw on your leg, folding back its ears and mewling pitifully.
The hot water is lukewarm at the best of times, but in this heat it doesn’t really matter. However, due to the frequent power cuts this morning I squatted under a dribbling cold tap in semi darkness, keeping my mouth firmly shut – god knows what microbes exist in the tap water; I even brush my teeth with bottled since an acquaintance got typhoid. I liberally apply Piz Buin factor 30 prior to heading out, and you can tell it is good stuff since even my luminous white feet are not burned, despite not having seen the sun for a decade. Not sure about the description of ultra absorbent, non-greasy, however. I look like I’ve been slathered in butter.
A long ride on Sunday north to Arambol – full of Russians. They really do look more miserable than anyone else, even the Swedes (who are well named, being bland, vaguely yellow and rather root vegetable in demeanour.) It was blazing hot riding at midday, with a hair dryer wind. After a strawberry juice and hummus with chapattis (the Israelis are also here in some strength) we walked around a hill, following a trail through thick bush.
We were heading for a banyan tree – a popular spot with what the Rough Guide calles the ‘Boom Shankar Chillum Brigade’. They were out in force. 15-20 tourists, overwhelmingly white, most with dreadlocks, many in dungarees, and with more bangles per arm than a Bangalore housewife. They sat in a circle with an expression that was simultaneously aloof yet expectant, as if waiting for some kind of enlightenment to strike without wanting to appear too keen to admit that it hadn’t yet already done so. And around them were more tourists, taking photos of the ones sitting in a circle. It was like going to the zoo: “And here, children, we can see the greater spotted new age traveller, resident of Ko Phan Nga but now highly endangered there. These ones are the result of a captive breeding program in northern Europe, and they migrate south in great numbers to congregate on the beaches of Goa, immediately spotted by their similar appearance to each other.” I made eye contact with a couple and they quickly looked away, like commuters on the Tube. Enlightenment still some way off yet. We adjourned to a rock a little further down the path where we smoked and swatted mosquitoes. The, through the birdsong filtering down through the canopy, there came a muffled thump. I groaned. They had got the bongos out. Soon a ragged and rather uncertain chanting started up, before dying away in a paroxysm of northern European self-consciousness, despite the valiant efforts of a few evangelicals. I’m afraid I found the entire episode hilarious, representative as it was of the utter poverty of the imagination, the total submersion of the individual into the conformity of the mass. People who escape the conventionality of life at home to then dress identically, all go to the same place and act out some pantomime of meaningfulness appear to have bought into spiritual materialism just as much as they have bought into other forms of materialism. Take the trappings but miss the meaning.
We encountered another tribe on the beach at Calangute, occupying a small shack bedecked with football flags. The next shack along sported a Russian tricolore, but this was England. The occupants were all large, pink, tattooed and shaven-headed. They had the banter of long familiarity, and the enterprising shack owner had accommodated their assorted tastes by featuring items on the menu such as ‘Cheesy Beans on Toast’ or ‘Full English Breakfast’. One man, clad in a tiny pair of speedos, absent-mindedly stroked his enormous belly while he talked, as one mind pet a large dog, and regaled his audience with an account of how our Sharon got ‘stook’ at the ‘airdresser’ after two inch of snow caused total chaos on the roads. He was joined at his table by a lady who resembled an overtanned wallet, sagging mahogany-coloured hide prominently on display. I wonder at the enormity of these people – they are three times the size of the locals, who glide around them loose-limbed and smiling, extracting rupees effortlessly.